Students should be in 'center of the frame'

Education continues to lead the legislative agenda for Georgia policymakers. The State Education Finance Study Commission has spent the last year examining ways to improve academic productivity based on revisions to Georgia's education funding formula. Educators from across the state, along with individual support staffers, have taken center stage before the Commission. They were called upon to outline academic innovations being used in their districts for the purpose of extracting educational excellence using the least amount of public dollars. In today's economic environment, state educational budget reductions have challenged overall efficiency and effectiveness of school operations.

In recent years, K-12 public education has suffered a devastating $1 billion in state budget cuts. Austerity cuts to the educational budget remain questionable as well. Per-pupil funding remains near its lowest level in more than a decade. Equalization funding has been cut 20.5 percent since FY 2009. Equalization funding aims to facilitate funding across local school systems based on local property tax wealth. These grants are provided to qualifying school systems that have been hit hardest by decreasing property values and shrinking local funds. But closer examination of equalization funding finds Baker and Quitman counties in Southwest Georgia receiving $0 because of their property "wealth" as opposed to metro area Gwinnett County, which in 2013 will receive $43 million.

Recently, two Southwest Georgia school superintendents, Dr. Joshua Murfree of Dougherty County and Dr. Allen Fort from Quitman County, traveled to Atlanta to testify before the State Education Finance Study Commission. Their presentations revealed quite the dichotomy of rural public school funding vs. metro area public school funding (and other parts of the state). Dr. Fort laments (and rightfully so) that the amount of money received by Gwinnett public schools in one budget year is enough to run his school district for six years! Yes, there are exponentially more students in metro areas than Southwest Georgia, but most of Superintendent Fort's challenges can be solved with more funding for teachers and central office assistance.

As superintendent, Fort has the responsibility/accountability for school nutrition; safety and security; exceptional students; student assessment; professional development; curriculum leadership; transportation; teacher recruitment and retirement; facilities coordinator; FTE coordinator; Titles I, II and IX; special education, and numerous others. Allen Fort does all of the above without assistance. How can we expect Southwest Georgia students to compete academically when their districts are so fraught with funding disparities?

Superintendent Murfree battles a population of students eclipsed by declining household incomes, high parental unemployment, a growing population of homeless children, young inexperienced parents, and growing national public school apathy. At last count, there were some 800 homeless children in Dougherty County alone.

These gentlemen are joined by Superintendent Danny Ellis of Calhoun County, whose school district lost more than $150,000 during a recent restructuring of Georgia's special Educational Equalization Grant, half of what the district received in last year's budget. A $150,000 shortfall equates to the loss of two, maybe three, certified classroom teachers. Rural and Southwest Georgia school leaders are not "genies," yet they are expected to use whatever resources available to them to ensure academic success for entire student bodies, regardless of budgetary constraints. In addition, these educational leaders, through the use of limited financial dollars/incentives, must recruit highly qualified instructional faculty capable of producing talented and gifted students ready for either post-secondary engagement or employment.

The State Education Finance Study Commission remains committed in finding ways to adequately fund education for all students. This commitment is noted through bipartisan efforts from committee members and their willingness to frame applicable questions, seek practicable answers, collaborate as teams; not to reform education, but to continuously improve academic demands of the workplace. Today, work force investment aligned with student preparation trumps any pedagogical strategy! Ultimately, the goal of the commission is to prepare Georgia's children for lifelong learning coupled with skills that unite them to career paths. A trilogy of professional, social and human capital, as noted by the State Education Commission, is needed to connect education and children to the work place. Consequently, this presents a simple solution to the growth and stability of Southwest Georgia communities.

Communities are only as strong as their schools, and schools are as strong as their communities. Thus enters community leaders from all commonalities, who care about children; who care about community; who care about improving the performance of American education, and who care about country. Public education, of course, needs adequate funding, but it also needs community support. Without community stakeholders, public education dies a very slow and painful death. When that demise occurs, businesses will locate and relocate to areas, including countries, where there is a quality, educated, trained work force. Spreadsheet companies look for the bottom line, and obviously global competition caught up with Southwest Georgians years ago! Therefore, if we place education alongside children, in the "center of the frame," communities will grow and economic development will again flourish in South Georgia.

Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, District 12, is a member of the State Education Finance Study Commission and the (national) Education Commission of the States.